November 1, 2021

A Guide back from the brink of Parenting a Challenging Kid.


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The first rule of survival training is this: if you are lost in the woods, you must first fully acknowledge that you are lost in the woods.

You have no chance at making it out if you waste precious time stuck in the thought that a paved road might be just beyond the next hill. You must fully embrace being lost. Now you can make a proper plan.

The parenting reality that we struggle to accept is this: our kid is challenging, different, and requires a different script. Instead of admitting we are lost, we take the scene at the birthday party or our in-laws’ questioning glances to mean we are inept. We are failures. We are still headed in the right direction, we just need to walk faster. Our kid will shape up with a few more consequences, with consistency, with a sticker chart, with therapy.

I remember the night I reached my lowest point in parenting, a place of exhausted submission. It was 2:00 a.m., and the whole house was up. I was lost.

As I oriented to my new surroundings, I mentally let go of everything I had been doing—my teacher training, my structured mommy routine, my strict bedtime rules—everything I had been doing that should’ve worked, but hadn’t. I replaced it with a blank slate. No past experience would help me. No parenting advice. No “Nanny 911.” I was lost.

My kid was different, part of a cluster of kids who are lacking in any number of social skills that makes interacting with other humans smooth and trouble-free. They are inflexible, possibly explosive, possibly impulsive, over-the-top in their reactions. You cannot treat them like your other kids or like your friends treat their kids. You cannot take their iPad without something being thrown at you. You cannot have them play for the other soccer team because there aren’t enough players without screaming or tears. You cannot remind them to do a chore without the door slamming so loud, a picture falls down from the wall. They need something completely different.

It was time to go rogue in my quest for answers.

On my nightstand, from a yard sale, I had a book entitled, Mending the Broken Bond: The 90 Day Answer to Repairing Your Relationship With Your Child, by Frank Lawlis. No one had recommended it. It could’ve been self-published by the look of the ho-hum graphic on the cover. But that night, at 2:00 a.m., I ravenously started reading it. It described my family life to a tee. It also offered the first concrete piece of advice to get out of the woods: pare down your expectations.

In normal parenting situations, you probably have 20-25 daily expectations of your kid: get up at a certain time, brush your teeth, comb your hair, get dressed, eat breakfast, wait at the bus stop without incident, be courteous at school, listen to teachers, try your best, be nice to other kids, ride the bus home without incident, do homework, don’t eat ice cream before dinner, set the table, limit screen time to an hour, eat your dinner, be pleasant at dinner, be kind to your sibling, shower, be in bed at a decent hour, and stay asleep all night.

The book advised, with explosive kids, to limit hard expectations to two or three: go to school, be kind to your sibling, stay asleep all night. These challenging kids who had personal strengths in other areas, didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with the onslaught of adult expectations that came at them every day. So, I would focus on a precious few until they could be successful and feel ownership of those tasks.

Throw out the rules?! Pre-lost me would’ve had her own hissy fit. The rules made me feel in control and like I was doing my job as a parent. But post-lost me was up for anything.

The main message of the book was this: difficult kids are only parented through relationships. They buck authoritative discipline; it sets them off. If your relationship had eroded due to ugly, daily conflicts, you had no parenting leverage. So, your job was to cut out expectations until your child could handle the load and then build on them through your relationship. The practical take away: instead of homework at night, we went on a bike ride in the dark together. The philosophical one: the heart of parenting is the quality of the bond.

The second enlightened path out of the woods was in the form of a Dr. Ross Greene training. I was working at an alternative school at the time and was lucky enough to get trained in the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model of conflict resolution. I was supposed to use it on our oppositional teens, but instead, it became the main method of handling household discourse.

It was the antithesis of what my teacher training had taught me. Instead of adult-directed authority, it relied on seeing kids as partners and figuring out solutions together. When your child had an issue, you listened without judgment, validated, and empathized. And then you brainstormed a solution that would work for both of you, that addressed the deeper issue at hand, so you avoided a meltdown the next time. Preventative instead of reactive.

Dr. Greene’s method led to another humbling lesson in just how lost I had been. I had no idea about the real reasons my child couldn’t meet certain expectations. I had assumed the worst: that they were willful, that they tried to manipulate. The truth was that they had real feelings, sensory issues, anxiety, and lagging skills that prevented them from being able to comply. I wrote Dr. Greene’s guiding slogan on my bathroom mirror: kids do well when they can. Slowly, we began to trust each other.

Months later, when we had made it out of our wilderness experience together intact, I felt grateful. Being lost was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. It made me a better parent, a better teacher, and a better human. I grew in ways only someone who reaches rock bottom can: by realizing you don’t know anything but you are on your knees, ready to learn.

I broke, and looking in from the outside, it may have looked like I gave up, throwing the typical parenting task list out the window. In exchange, I was gifted with understanding my child on a deeper level and restoring the warmth and love that had gone underground. From that place, I found stillness. From that place, I could lead again.

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